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Are You Teaching Math from an Adult’s Viewpoint or from a Child’s?

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MathematizingMany years ago I was at an event held at a university and, as I’m prone to do, I was listening in on conversations around me. (You can learn so much that way!) In one conversation I overheard a math professor from the university ask a preschool teacher if she “did math” with four-year-olds. The teacher’s response was, “No.”

I almost fell on the floor. And if I hadn’t in fact been eavesdropping, I would have added my two cents to the conversation!

No math with four-year-olds? If that classroom had blocks or manipulatives of any kind and the children were sorting and stacking them, they were doing math. If they were doing any cooking and baking – and therefore measuring – they were doing math. If they were reading, “Three little kittens lost their mittens,” they were “doing” math. And, certainly, every time one of the children talked about who was the tallest, or had the highest tower, or how many puppies their doggie birthed, there was most definitely math involved.

The problem, I realized later, was that the preschool teacher involved was clearly looking at math in an “adult” way. No, the children certainly were not engaged in trigonometry or calculus, or in balancing a checkbook or working out a budget (the kinds of things that spring to mind when the typical adult thinks of math). But they were engaged – every single day – in math the “children’s” way. Which is to say through exploration and investigation, problem solving, and discovery.

I’ve often said in the past that where there are children there is music. But it’s become clear to me that it’s equally true to say that where there are children there is math.

I think Eugene Geist, author of Children Are Born Mathematicians, would agree. He was a guest on an episode of Studentcentricity, sponsored by Redleaf Press, during which we discussed this topic. After the taping, Gene added, “…it is important to remember that children learn math in a very natural way through interaction with their environment and the people around them.”

This is good news for the many, many adults – including teachers! – who are math-phobic, a phenomena which Gene contends “is not caused by an actual fear of the math itself, but rather from the way it has been taught and presented to many children.”

Gene offers the following advice to adults when it comes to “teaching” math to young kids:

An active mathematical environment is key to helping a child develop mathematically. We need to think about mathematics the same way we think about reading: as a developmental process that is emergent in children.…Children are creative thinkers and we need to capitalize on that fact when teaching math, allowing children to come up with many ways to solve problems by using their own natural thinking ability. Finally, as parents and teachers, we need to avoid focusing on right and wrong answers and focus on the thinking involved in the child’s process. Questioning and discussion about the process is much more instructive that simply declaring a child “right” or “wrong.” Ask “How did you get that?” or “How do you know that?” or other probing questions that allow a child to talk and explain are important to the constructive process.

Allen Rosales, author of Mathematizing, and the second guest on the program, says that his title refers to the process of understanding math within the contexts of children's lives, [which] is one of the best strategies an educator can incorporate with young children.”

He would also agree that where there are children there is math. He adds:

Every exploration, investigation, or role-playing experience children encounter on a daily basis requires the use of math concepts and processing. The role of the mathematizing teacher is to observe children's daily interactions, interpret the math the students are processing, and support children's play by providing rich materials, high quality math language, and higher order mathematical inquiry. By scaffolding and developing the mathematical concepts that emerge from the children's interests, passions, and contexts, educators ensure that the learning is meaningful (from the heart), intentional (strategic), and academically rigorous (from the mind). 

By the way, if I were part of a group of people asked to raise their hands if they were math-phobic, I’d be among the first to get mine in the air. That, of course, is because I’d be looking at math through an adult’s eyes. But if I were to look at it through a child’s eyes, as recommended by Gene and Allen, I’d shrug and say, “Not me!”


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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

  • Guest
    Michelle Monday, 19 October 2015

    Yes! And yes! I tell my fellow teachers you are teaching, or intuducing the language of Math! "More than less than the same as." "How many are left?" "How many would we have altogether." This is math. Patterns, shapes, structures. This is math. Comparing same different. Once you start thinking about it you can go on forever! :)

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